(Silent Thunder Order)

point of no return pic


April 2, 2020

Meditation Punctuation

Zen is the sentence

of your life once you remove

the punctuation

When we first begin practicing meditation, it functions a bit like the punctuation in this sentence. We interrupt the daily flow of our lives to take a time-out, much as a comma pauses the flow of a sentence, for a brief moment. As our practice progresses, the time we spend in meditation tends to expand, becoming more like a semicolon; eventually more like a period, where life goes on, but we come to a full stop in the midst of it. Along the way, we experience a lot of question marks (???) and even the occasional exclamation point (!). These latter Aha! Or Eureka! moments are what keep us going, in the face of little noticeable progress.

            With time, we experience a phase-shift. Zen practice becomes no longer an interruption in our life, or a sideshow to the midway of the circus. Zen fully embraces the circus, in all its chaos. Matsuoka Roshi once observed, “People visualize the Zen mind to be like the surface of a pond, smooth as glass, reflecting the full moon in the sky above without distortion. When the wind blows, the surface breaks into waves. Bubbles rising to the surface burst, disrupting the calm water in its natural state. If we throw a stone into the pond, concentric circles ripple to the edges of the pond, disappearing when they break on the shore.”

            Stones cast into the still pond are like thoughts that come and go, temporarily breaking the mirror-like surface, and fracturing the reflection of the moon in the sky. If we try to catch the stones and retrieve them from the pond, we stir up even more turbidity, disturbing the mud at the bottom of the pond. If we leave them alone, the pond settles more quickly back into a deep stillness.

            This is a relatively apt metaphor for the Zen mind, as far as it goes. But Sensei also would point out that if you are driving at full speed and then veer off the expressway in an emergency, managing to keep the vehicle under control, miss all the trees, and come to a stop, safe and sound — this is also the Zen mind. The awareness developed in zazen is capable of moving very fast, or of being very still. One capacity supports and enables the other.

            A sentence skillfully punctuated flatters the rationality of the discriminating mind, or citta. Without punctuation, it favors the free-flowing stream-of-consciousness characterized by intuition, or bodhi. In Zen, we do not prefer one over the other, but see them as complementary. Both are necessary to the full functioning of the holistic mind, bodhicitta.

            Wherever you fall on the intellectual-intuitive spectrum, if you reject one or the other, you do not understand the Middle Way. All such confusions are in the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind of the beholder. In Zen, however, there is no real contradiction, no actual dichotomy, just as there is no conflict between the punctuation and the sentence.

            All such seeming dualities are actually complementarities. The punctuation enhances the meaning of the sentence, but would be meaningless without the words. Zen goes beyond words and even thought, but “Although it is not constructed it is not beyond words” from Master Tozan’s “Precious Mirror Samadhi.” All words, such as “pandemic,” try to capture the meaning of that which is beyond words. It is not the fault of language, but only our dependence upon it.


(Silent Thunder Order)


point of no return pic


April 2, 2020

Point of No Return

Spring: time to wake up!

Step off the hundred-foot pole...

(dive to the bottom)


Spring is the season when dormant life springs back. Notwithstanding Zen’s teachings on impermanence and change, periodic irritants like daylight savings time require us to “spring forward,” which really means that we lose an hour of sleep, assuming that we are still living on clock time. In Zen, waking up is equally relevant in any season, and at any time. One of the things we wake up to in zazen is real time, which is independent of any clock.

            Needless to say, to literally step off the top of a hundred-foot pole, you first have to shinny up from the ground, without benefit of climbing spurs and halter belt. You can expect to slip back from time to time when you hit a slick spot, or to have to hold on for dear life when your strength flags. Needless to say, this is an apt metaphor for Zen practice.

            While falling asleep, you may have felt the sensation of weightlessness, as if you have stumbled, and are freefalling through space, experiencing intense vertigo. This gives you an inkling of what stepping off the hundred-foot pole feels like. A telephone pole is about forty feet high, so we are talking precarious situation. Two and a half times that tall. Assuming the same thickness, that pole is going to be fairly unstable, especially with a heavy body perched on all fours on top. Lots of pendulum sway. Add in some wind, and you can just feel the queasiness.

            Matsuoka Roshi would illustrate this jumping-off point by raising his hand, four fingers clustered together, representing your arms and legs perched at the very top. Then he would say, “One more step!” and instantly open is hand wide.

            Sri Ramakrishna, a Hindu saint of the 1850s living in Calcutta, spoke of an “ocean of consciousness.” One of his students came in excitedly one day and said that he had seen the surface of the ocean, that he understood. The sage told him that he needed to dive in. But the young follower said he was afraid he would die. Ramakrishna encouraged him, saying he would not die, as this is the ocean of consciousness. But he had to dive in, because the “jewels” are at the bottom.

            There are many such poetic descriptions pointing to the nature of this transformative experience, from many different traditions. The Zen approach, at its core, is for you to “just do it.” But of course, it is beyond our doing. We have to allow it to happen.

            At this time, the truth and method of Buddhism become ever more relevant. What Zen prescribes when we “live in interesting times” is consistent: Just sit. This is not a flip or uncaring dismissal of the unusual conditions we face in a pandemic. But it argues that we are always in a pandemic of sorts. Birth is the leading cause of death. This truth does not change with circumstance. We are constantly faced with death from the moment we are born, and even in the womb. “Birth is an expression complete the is moment. Death is an expression complete this moment. They are like winter and spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring nor death the end of spring” according to Master Dogen in “Genjokoan.” Welcome to spring.


Written by Soun Kosetsu Randy Earl, Novice Priest

In dharma talks I tend to draw from my personal life experiences because that is what I know and thus more authentically represents my own practice and understanding. This means, for better or worse, that my family members often figure prominently in my examples and stories. My youngest child, Duncan, has played this role several times, thus folks have asked me about his interest in Buddhism and Zen and what I have done to share the teachings with him. This post is an attempt to describe my approach to teaching the dharma and zen practice to a child and to share my lessons learned and some helpful resources.

Learning by Imitation

Duncan MeditatingDuncan first expressed interest in the way children learn most things, through imitation. He saw me meditating so he wanted to meditate. Once he showed an interest, I was happy to introduce him to zazen and let him pick it up at his own pace. He started sitting for about five minutes at a time and now sits for about 15 minutes at a time, although not as frequently as I sit. I gave him his own meditation bench (kindly made by sensei!) and cushion, which he has used since he was 6 years old.

Recently, I was asked to talk about creativity in the context of Zen. In a way, that is a misconstruction, as Zen is the heart of creativity, not merely a context for creativity. So, even to speak of creativity and Zen is to make a separation that does not exist. Nonetheless, here is a brief video which attempts to explore the relationship to foster clarity.

You can find more videos on Zen, the Silent Thunder Order, and the Atlanta Soto Zen Center on our YouTube Channel.

Japan Day 1b w1500Visiting the national treasure sites in Nara, we were all overwhelmed and awed, like everyone else who visits them, by the sheer scale and majesty of the temple buildings, and the statuary they contain. There is something about standing in the presence of these massive, towering works of transcendent art, further enhanced by the meaning they are meant to convey, of such power radiating from compassion, that is impossible to describe. It is a bit like looking at the Grand Canyon, or the Hubble images of the far reaches of the universe, and wondering how could this possibly be.

But the effect of the temples on your mind is compounded by the stunning fact that these architectural and sculptural masterpieces were built by mere mortals, with full awareness and intention as to their effect upon others of the time, and far into the unforeseeable future. At this time, there was no communications technology such as we have today - no movies, TV, radio or other broadcast media - so, if you wanted to make an impression, what did you have at your disposal? The construction materials of the day, the giant cypress trees, stones, and the combinations of grasses and clay to make stucco and ceramics, as well as metal ore mined and forged, and the beginnings of alloys of copper, tin and iron, for example to make bronze. And, not to mention, various combinations of pigments and vehicles to make surface finishes, such as whitewash and paint. And, of course, gold and gold leaf, tons and tons of gold leaf.

But the main dimension you had at your disposal was the sheer size and scale you were willing to undertake. Going from temple to temple on a trek like this is exhausting, physically, but also mentally and emotionally. It also challenges credulity that there would be yet another, and then another, sometimes many in the same neighborhood. One area alone, at the top of a mountain range accessible by cable car, is said to boast 117 temples, each of which occupies an incredible amount of land, and features uncountable buildings, statuary, paintings, and any number of skillfully designed and constructed amenities and necessities to support the ritual devotions of the pilgrims and visitors, and to properly honor the sponsors with monuments.
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